Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Searching for truth: Part 2

Claims about the existence of God

I'm going to be blunt here. The existence of God has never been demonstrated. In fact, for several of the most common definitions of "God", the existence of such a being is actually not testable or falsifiable. By pushing God beyond the reach of science, believers often confidently claim that science is the wrong tool for the job of proving God's existence. What they always fail to appreciate is that this isn't my problem. It's theirs. Science is our best method for discovering truth about reality. Without science, their task of confirming the existence of God just got a whole lot more difficult.

Shifting the topic a little bit, there are many people who feel that proving God doesn't exist is impossible, and therefore we should remain "agnostic" on the issue. I used to feel that way too, but I now consider myself an atheist for two main reasons.
  1. Most atheists are actually agnostic anyway (including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens). They don't claim to know there are no gods. They just lack a positive belief in one. Essentially they are following the "withhold belief" option I mentioned in part 1. This is where I sit also, although I would say that to the extent that any claim about the biblical god is testable in the natural realm, it has probably already been falsified by science. 
  2. There is no more evidence for gods or goddesses than there is for unicorns, celestial teapots, leprechauns, demons, devils, goblins, fairies, etc. And yet most people have no problems accepting that all of those probably don't exist. It is on that basis that I conclude that gods and goddesses equally probably don't exist. If I'm not expected to declare myself an "agnostic" regarding those other entities, I don't see why gods and goddesses are so special. 

Some believers will probably want to contest the second point here, claiming that they believe this or that piece of evidence points to there being a God who created the universe or the earth, or something along those lines.

The part they are missing has already been explained in the section on falsifiability back in part 1 of this series. Any such piece of evidence could point equally as well to any other random deity, such that there is no way to know which is the "true" one. The "god" that apparently explains all of this evidence is nothing more than a wild card. Essentially if you replaced the word "god" with the word "magic" there isn't really any difference. At best you might claim that your understanding of God is consistent with your evidence from nature or physics, but there are many hypotheses that are consistent with the very same evidence. You would just be literally believing what you want to believe.

Supernatural claims

A common objection made by believers is that non-believers are "biased towards naturalism". My response is that I am indeed biased towards naturalism, for the very simple reason that the natural realm quite obviously exists, while no one has ever demonstrated the existence of anything beyond it. Nor is it even conceivable how anyone could demonstrate that. If a supernatural entity is supposed to have an effect on the natural realm, then science can measure that (and yet no one has ever confirmed such a thing, say in studies on prayer for example). On the contrary, if a supernatural entity never has an effect on the natural realm, it is irrelevant to us.

It is also sometimes claimed that atheists are closed-minded because we won't accept the possibility that something like the supernatural realm exists. But what is that possibility? The mere suggestion is not enough evidence to go on. Would they be open to the possibility of a "pixie realm"? or perhaps a realm full of miniature unicorns? It is no surprise to find that just as with gods, the concept of a supernatural realm is not well defined, and often not much more than a placeholder for "magic".

I'll believe in the supernatural (whatever that is supposed to be) as soon as believers show me conclusive evidence for it, and not a moment before. I'm not just biased towards the natural realm. I'm biased towards evidence and reason as well. Perhaps my failure is that I refuse to accept illogical and baseless assertions as fact. I think I'll be ok.

Given the complete lack of evidence, the "supernatural" is therefore nothing more than an empty assertion. When faced with competing hypotheses, where one requires the existence of this "supernatural realm", and one does not, the latter hypothesis is favoured by Occam's razor. We all declare that we accept this is true when we go to a doctor instead of an exorcist.

Miracle claims

The Bible is full of claims about various miracles. In fact, many writings from around the same period also document many miracles. Some of them are quite ridiculous while others seem more mediocre by comparison. Should we believe they all happened? How should we decide if any of them actually happened?

The difficulty is that we weren't there, and we cannot travel back in time to check the facts for ourselves. So we turn to history to try to piece together what we think happened. The problem is, historians are generally interested in reconstructing what most likely happened in the past. By definition, a miracle would be the least likely thing to occur, and so historians are unable to verify any accounts of miracles. It's always more likely that someone would write about a miracle (that didn't occur) than that a miracle actually occurred.

Some believers see this as an opportunity to smuggle in their belief in miracles. Just as they claim that the supernatural is beyond the reach of science, they argue that miracles are beyond the reach of history. The part they fail to appreciate is the reason why this is the case. That reason is that we lack the methodology or the evidence to confirm those things. This is not an invitation to insert whatever belief most appeals to us. Rather this is an invitation to come up with a reliable method for doing what science and history cannot. So far I have never heard of this being done.

About the only method I have heard of regarding how to decide which miracle claims to accept and which to reject, is to appeal to one's own credulity as to which miracles seem more likely than others. I hope I don't need to explain firstly the circular and secondly the arbitrary nature of such a "method". It is anything but reliable.

Another curious thing is that some of the kinds of miracles reported in the New Testament have been reported throughout the world numerous times in the past 100 years. Yet almost no one believes these are genuine miracles. Here is a second-hand eye-witness report of a resurrection, from a well-known biblical scholar. I doubt many believers would accept this report as true. I fail to see how anyone can justify belief in a resurrection from a time when the evidence is scarce, and yet disbelieve in a similar claim from the past 100 years, when the claimant is still alive and can be interviewed. There are also various reports of ebola victims rising from the dead just in the last year. I'm sorry, but my credulity just doesn't stretch that far.

Show me the medical records, and the tests done both before and after under controlled scientific conditions. Bring the evidence that would confirm it beyond reasonable doubt.

People accuse me of asking for too much. No, I'm only asking for the evidence we would need in order to confirm that a miracle has occurred. If we don't have that evidence, that's not my problem - it's yours. I see no reason to lower the standards of scientific enquiry just to allow your religious beliefs to have an easier ride. The standards are set high for a reason, and that reason is because it's so easy to fool ourselves. I don't understand why people would want to lower the standards of enquiry to the point where they couldn't tell if they were fooling themselves. Well, I do understand why they'd want to do it if they were desperately looking for ways to confirm what they already believed. But I don't understand why they'd want to do it if they were genuinely searching for truth.

Divine inspiration claims

The burden of proof rests on those who claim that the Bible was inspired by God. It is obviously not enough to simply declare that the Bible was divinely inspired because it says so (yet I'm always amazed when people make this very argument).

At the very least, believers must demonstrate that a particular passage in the Bible could not have been written by a human with the knowledge they had at the time of writing. Unfortunately even believers accept that humans at least held the "pen". So what we're really talking about is a belief that these human authors got their knowledge from a particular god. Some believe this god told them literally every word they had to write. Some believe they only had to convey the ideas. Still others believe that they simply wrote down what they saw, complete with mistakes.

None of that is important. What is important is that not only do they need to demonstrate that the text could not have been written by a human with the knowledge they had at the time, they must also demonstrate that that knowledge was in fact revealed by the particular god they claim to believe in. Otherwise we should just conclude that they had knowledge from some as-yet-unknown source. Sure, it might not fit a natural explanation (barring some form of time travel), but it wouldn't satisfy the believer's claims either.

To my knowledge the above burden of proof has never been met.

Somewhat ironically, or perhaps predictably, some believers have gone so far as to conveniently declare that God relayed his message in language and terms that people of the time would understand, and without imparting any new knowledge that they could not have derived via natural means. If you've been paying attention, this is called "making your beliefs unfalsifiable" and ignoring Occam's razor. Such is the determination of some believers to deceive themselves.

Prophecy claims

If you haven't read my article on the flawed methodology that underpins almost every Bible prophecy claim, I'd encourage you to take a look at it now (it will open in a new tab).

Again, the burden of proof is on the person who claims that a particular event was accurately predicted in advance and then later fulfilled (and was statistically unlikely). Also, similarly to the above section on divine inspiration, the believer must also demonstrate that either the prediction or the fulfilment of the prophecy (or both) was a divine act. I'd probably be willing to consider it a miraculous event even without this last part, but to be thorough we would want to rule out the possibility that the original authors were mistaken about where they got their information from. Again, perhaps some alien race had invented time travel. Yes, that's incredibly unlikely, but then so is the alternative view.

All that aside, for now I'd simply be happy if someone could actually provide solid evidence for the methodology they use to interpret prophecies and to interpret the supposed corresponding modern events. All I've seen so far are some vague "how it might have been" / "could have" / "maybe" style suggestions, but I fail to see why I should accept them over any other random suggestion without good evidence. It's far more likely that believers are fooling themselves, than that any miraculous event has occurred. Given this situation, we need to apply careful scrutiny to the methods we use.

If we need to exercise faith in order to believe that biblical prophecies were fulfilled, what's the point?

What are you searching for?

Given the readiness of believers to uncritically accept evidence that favours their beliefs and the skepticism they seem to employ when faced with contrary evidence, I have to ask the question of whether they are actually searching for truth, or whether they are merely searching for confirmation of what they already believe. If you don't see these two things as being entirely separate goals, then you are most likely only doing the latter.

To put it another way - if the thought of being wrong scares you to the point where you will accept almost any answer in favour of your current beliefs, even without sufficient evidence, then you are no longer searching for truth. You're probably searching for comfort instead.

Challenging and changing deeply held beliefs can be very uncomfortable. Learn to accept that. If you're searching for comfort, you probably won't find truth. The inverse is probably also true.

The only genuine way to search for truth is to accept that it could go either way, and then follow the evidence wherever it leads.

If you find that too difficult, then try this trick:
  1. Research the alternative viewpoint until you understand it thoroughly. If you cannot comprehend how a person could find it convincing, then you probably don't understand it well enough. 
  2. Think about the kinds of evidence you would require in order to believe it to be true. 
  3. Go and look for that evidence. 
Feel free to do the same for your original viewpoint too.

Click here to read part 3